Kuda-kallu: umbrella-stones or mushroom-stones?

Giorgio Samorini

Integration, vol. 6, pp. 33-40, 1995

I would like to discuss here about certain stone constructions present in some territories of southern India which aroused my interest when I visited this area. In particular, the so-called kuda-kallu ("umbrella-stone") attracted my attention. They belong to the prehistoric period of the southern Indian megaliths, whose finds are mainly in the territories of Karnataka, of Kerala and of Tamil Nadu.

The megalithic culture of southern India is rather enigmatic, in particular as far as its origins are concerned, for which different and conflicting hypotheses have been advanced. Among these, the most trustworthy are the "diffusion" theories, which propose a historical-geographical unity of this phenomenon and see megalithic peoples coming from south-eastern Europe reaching the South of the Indian peninsula through Marakam, Baluchistan and Sind (Krishna, 1967), or driven out of their dwellings in north-western India at a later time by Aryan peoples (Chinnian, 1983), or reaching the coasts of Karnataka by sea. Some "autonomist" hypotheses have been also advanced, which consider an independent origin of the megalithic phenomenon in different parts of the world and, therefore, a local origin for the south-Indian one.

kuda-kallu del sito di Aryyannoor - foto G. Samorini kuda-kallu del sito di Aryyannoor - foto G. Samorini
                         Kuda-kallu del sito di Aryyannoor
These megalithic monuments belong to the Iron Age of the Indian peninsula. In Kerala the beginning of this period was dated to the beginning of the first millennium B.C., by means of radiocarbon determinations (Sathyamurthy, 1992). The megalithic monuments are thought to have been erected in the lapse of time between one thousand years B.C. and one hundred years after Christ, and the finds discovered together with these remains belong to the culture known as "Black and Red Ware". Chopra and coll. (1988) proposed a date within the period 700-400 B.C., whereas other scholars proposed a "lower" date (from 400-300 B.C. to 100 A.D.), and also more ancient ages were suggested, such as 1400 B.C. (Gurumurthy, 1983).

On the other hand, these as well as other authors are more unanimous as to the hypothesis that the constructors of south Indian megalithic works belonged to Dravidian speaking populations. Still today the States of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are inhabited by tribes of Dravidian origin, keeping megalithic traditions and customs - a rare case of historical continuity, with the usage, for example, of erecting dolmens in honour of those who died in an unnatural way (it is the case for Malayarayans of Kerala, cf. Chinnian, 1983).

On the average the Kuda-kallu are 1.5-2 m. high and 1.5-2 m. wide. They consist of four stones cut like half segments, forming a base which supports a fifth stone having the resting side flat and the other one convex. The whole thing may resemble a parasol, but even more a large mushroom.

I had the opportunity of visiting some archeological sites in which the kuda-kallu are present, during a couple of trips to India, the first in 1984, the second in 1994. The most important concentrations of Kuda-kallu are in the region of Trichur and Palghat, north of Cochin, inside the coastal region. Among the different megalithic sites I visited, I rembember those of Cheramangad (or Cheramanangad, half a mile from Vellarakal), and of Aryyannoor (near Eyyal), reachable from Trichur by car. The region is gently hilly and the rocky soil is made of laterite which can be easily carved. One of the kuda-kallu of the Cheramangad site was moved to Trichur and can be visited in the garden in front of the archaelogical Museum. Another important concentration of kuda-kallu is in the megalithic site of Porkulam, in Kerala, which I was unable to visit.

Other megalithic structures present in the same archaelogical sites, around the kuda-kallu, are: dolmens, menhirs, topikal ("hat-stones"), circles of stones, rock-cut caves, hood-stones. The topikal (or topikallu) consists of a dome-shaped stone lying on three standing stones forming a square base: the whole thing has the appearance of a truncated paraboloid. Another peculiar structure is the hood-stone, consisting of a single large dome-shaped stone, with the flat side resting on the ground, placed to close a tomb. To see these structures all together causes a certain impression. The site of Cheramangad mainly consists of topikal, hood-stones and kuda-kallu «which look like a group of giant mushrooms from a distance» (Menon, 1991 :40).

The site is locally known with the name of Kudakalluparambu. Also Longhurst (1979 :11) reports that the monuments «from a distance resemble a crop of giant mushrooms».

Iyer describes the site of Porkulam in the following way: « What is most significant about Porkulam is that in an area of two acres, kuda-kallu, dolmenoid cists, and urn burials covered by granite slabs enclosed by circles and caves are found existing side by side, each keeping its respective place, as if all were contemporaneous and part and parcel of the same cultural unit» (Iyer, 1967 :25).

Unlike topikal and hood-stones, which were graves, in the kuda-kallu no type of tombs nor of pottery were ever found. Therefore, they are not graves.

According to A.H. Longhurst (1979), their function was of "memento" of the dead person, probably erected to mark the place were the body was cremated. The same author connects the kuda-kallu to the later stupa, a monument of hemispherical shape (it was like this at the beginning of its architectural evolution, then it was transformed into a brick tower placed on a high terrace), containing the Buddha’s or other Buddhist saints’ relics, or also only a memorial monument of important events in the life of the Buddha.

However, the strongest association, Longhurst reveals, is with the parasol, well-known as archaic symbol of power and authority, as well as of sacredness, widespread in ancient Egypt as well as among Assyrians and other Oriental civilizations of a later age. In some Buddhist countries the parasol is venerated. In India it mainly acquired a religious meaning: images of the Buddha never appear in the early Buddhist art, he is represented by symbols such as a wheel, a throne, a pair of footprints, and these are placed under one or more "honorific" parasols (wooden or fabric parasols are erected on top of stupa, too). There also was someone who saw in the kuda-kallu «a creduly executed stone model of umbrellas of palm leaf used by the local people» (Sathyamurthy, 1992:3). The local tradition ascribes a Buddhist origin to the megalithic monuments. They were regarded as the adobe of hermits when Buddhism and Jainism were popular in Kerala (Krishna, 1967:25).

Even though I accept as plausible the association of kuda-kallu with the parasol, sacred and sovereignity symbol, I would like to advance the hypothesis that such constructions would represent mushrooms, to the shape of which they resemble considerably.

Kuda-kallu is a term of the Malayalam language - the language most widely spoken at present in Kerala which became different from the Tamil language in the IX century after Christ - and it literally means "umbrella-stone". It is undoubtedly a late appellation, surely subsequent to the period of the erection of the monuments, and there are no well-founded proofs that it had the same meaning of the name attributed to it by the peoples who erected the monuments. Furthermore, as Longhurst affirms, very probably it was only in the period of Asokas, several centuries after the erection of the kuda-kallu, that the parasol was associated with the stupa, of which kuda-kallu are considered as precursors, both from the architectural and the symbolic point of view. Perhaps, the parasol was associated with the kuda-kallu as a result of the migration of Jainists and Brahamins toward southern India, which started during the same period of Asokas. Moreover, there is a substantial difference in the shape of kuda-kallu and that of the classic honorific parasols represented in Egyptian, Assyrian and Indian bas-riliefs: these latter are characterized by a thin supporting stick, by a parasol generally flat on both sides (the so-called "circular parasol", often with fringed rim, and by a short central pin sticking out of the upper part. The kuda-kallu has a stronger and more compact appearance, it has no plumes nor gaudy decorations (unless they were made of wood) and its shape recalls some large mushrooms of the Amanita or Boletus kind.

In this connection, I remind that the two species of psychoactive mushrooms Amanita muscaria and A. pantherina are present in southern India. They were found in forests of conifers in the region of Kodaikanal which is "only" 80 kms. from the sites where there are kuda-kallu, even though it is in Tamil Nadu (Madurai). It is also true, as pointed out by Richard Gordon Wasson, that «its presence there has been attributed by mycologists to plaintings of exotic conifers in the past century» (Wasson et al., 1986:136), but exactly the presence of the kuda-kallu and of a detail which will be described straight after, suggests a certain caution in accepting the hypothesis put forward by mycologists, before further checks.

In his monumental work on Soma, Wasson touched upon the presence of megalithic "mushroom-stones" in Kerala, however, it seems not that he visited them personally (I think that if he had the opportunity of being in the site of Aryyannoor, in the middle of seven kuda-kallu, he would have been very impressed). He reports about these megalithic structures in a passage in which he discusses about the association between the mushroom and the parasol: «"Mushroom" in classical Sanscrit is chattra (..) The word itself comes from the root chad, "to cover", and its primary meaning is "parasol". For southern peoples the parasol furnishing protection from the sun, is of importance, and from Cambodia to Ethiopia is a symbol of authority (..) Until recently the northern peoples have not known the parasol or the umbrellas. When the Aryans invaded Iran and India, they gave to this newly discovered utensil an Aryan name, chattra, and later extended the meaning of that name to embrace the fleshy capped fungi (..) Nor, so far as I now know, are the RgVeda and Soma to be associated with the triple-tiered chattra ("parasol" and "mushroom") that surmounts the great stupa at Sanchi, one of the earliest and most awe-inspiring Buddhist structures that survive; nor with the megalithic "mushroom-stones" found in great numbers in Kerala, and less often in Nepal» (Wasson, 1967:63-6).

The parasols standing above the stupa were known in ancient India as the chhatravali. Wasson himself had previously pointed out that: «the earliest surviving reference to mushrooms in Sanskrit, going back to several centuries before Christ, is ahi-chattra(ka), "snake’s parasol", in the text called Nirukta» (Wasson & Wasson, 1957, I:104).

This bring us back to the south Indian cult of the snake, naga, a cult still well established among Dravidian peoples.

In the past the snake, the mushroom and the umbrella (parasol) could have been symbolically associated with each other in the same way as the toad, the mushroom and the lightning were associated with each other in Europe. However, one should not forget that, just in Dravidian territory, in the surroundings of Mysore, the lightning is associated with the appearance of some species of mushrooms (Phallus spp., cf. Wasson et al., 1986:89), a fact which proves that the lightning is not unrelated with the mushroom symbolic spheres of the south Indian cultures. The presence of ahi-chattra(ka) in the Nirukta would suggest the hypothesis that arcaic symbologies of the parasol and of the mushroom were not in contrast. The parasol itself, the emblem of the present State of Kerala, could have been associated with the mushroom since the origins of its symbolic value. Wasson underlined the likeness in shape between the mushroom and the parasol, noting that: «the mushroom has gills suggestive the struts of a parasol» (Wasson et al., 1986:61).

Whatever the object that the kuda-kallu intended to represent was, its shape influenced the religious and funeral architecture of the whole subsequent history of the Kerala’s peoples. A clear example is the modern Devi’s temple in Ambalathara, a village located along the road connecting Covalam with Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), in the coastal region of south Kerala. Even though it was intentionally constructed with the look of a huge parasol, 15 m. high, again its shape resembles more that of a large mushroom than that of an umbrella or of a parasol.

To the mycologist Gaston Guzmán the kuda-kallu appeared as gigantic mushroom representations, recalling more species of the Boletus kind, rather than the fly agaric «because of the shape of the excessively thick stipe» (Guzmán, 1984). However, this Author points out that they could represent other species of Basidiomycetes which were object of worship for their psychoactive properties (Guzmán, 1994).

One should not forget that some strong species of psilocybinic psychoactive mushrooms, such as Psilocybe aztecorum Heim var. aztecorum Heim emend. Guzmán, P. aztecorum Heim var. Bonetii (Guzmán) Guzmán, P. cubensis (Earl) Singer, Copelandia cyanescens (Berk. & Br.) Singer, C. tropica Natar & Ram, C. bispora (Mal. & Bert.) Singer & Weeks, grow in the region of Kodaikanal (Natarajan & Raman, 1983). Some of these species grow on excrements of various four-footed animals living in the wild state and not only on excrements of domestic cattle, and their spread could reach the hilly and coastal regions of southern India, including the kuda-kallu region.

If kuda-kallu represented mushrooms, then they represented psychoactive mushrooms with visionary properties allowing vision of the other world, of the after life, therefore mushrooms appropriate more than any other ones - for example edible mushrooms - to be associated with the cult of the dead.

Though one has not forcibly to see in the kuda-kallu the image of A. Muscaria or of A. Pantherina, and the possible psychoactive mushrooms of the region are numerous, a more rigorous observation of the archeological site of Cheramangad made me notice a detail which could be of the utmost importance for the determination of the mushroom species represented by kuda-kallu.

hood-stone dal sito di Cheramangad - foto G. Samorini The hood-stone could be seen as a kuda-kallu without pedestal ("stipe"), in which the stone forming the "hood" rests directly on the ground, where it covers a cylindrical shaped tomb in which a funeral urn is set. With a little bit of imagination, one could catch sight of the missing foot of the hood-stone in the shape of the cylindrical tomb placed underground, and thus the likeness in the shape of the two structures would be clear. The tomb carved in the laterite is large enough to contain a red terra-cotta urn, with piriform bottom, fitting together with the tomb bottom. This kind of piriform bottom recalls the shape of the terminal part of the stipe of several large mushrooms, in particular those springing up from an ovule, like the species of Amanita. Also the look of several stones forming the hood-stones is similar to that of the upper stones of the kuda-kallu (the "hats"), even though generally smaller. It is not by chance that archeologists consider the kuda-kallu, the topikal and the hood-stones all belonging to the megalithic monuments "of the parasol series".

On many of the hood-stones I could observe at Cheramangad there are deep holes which, however, do not reach the opposite side of the stone (the one resting on the ground): one or two holes presumably having the purpose of facilitating the removal of the stone by inserting poles into them to lever. But on some hood-stones, besides these deep holes, there are several cavities hollowed out on the whole exposed surface of the stone. Although the surface is rather rough (because of the kind of the laterite rock), the deliberatedness of their presence is unmistakable. 2-4 cm. deep and 4-7 cm. wide (however some are wider than 10 cm.) these cavities had a clear decorative function, or else they evidenced a distinctive feature of the object that the kuda-kallu represented.

disegno di kuda-kallu e hood-stone (G. Samorini) There are only two mushrooms having whitish puntiform spots on the cap surface and both are endowed with psychoactive properties: A. muscaria and A. pantherina. It is a distinctive feature of these two species and the most practical way to represent it on the stone is just that of carving round cavities on its surface. At this point, the hypothesis that the topikal and the kuda-kallu represented precisely one or both these mushrooms becomes more convincing.

It is an hypothesis which would arise important questions, the first of which already known by intuition by Wasson: which relationship is there between this megalithic cult and the cult of the Vedic Soma?

According to Wasson’s hypothesis, the sacred beverage of immortality and divinity Soma much-praised by RgVeda should be identified, in its original form, with a psychoactive beverage obtained by extracting the juice from the fly agaric. The knowledge of the psychoactive properties of the fly agaric is supposed to have been spread by Aryan peoples during the Indo-European migrations. With a more general view, the proto-Indoeuropean culture of Asiatic origin, from which several waves of people moved towards northern and southern Europe, Iran and India, carried the knowledge and the cult of the fly agaric with itself. It would therefore be plausible the fact that such knowledge was preserved in the subsequent ages among the civilizations which were formed by the impact between Indo-European and native peoples. As recently affirmed by Jonathan Ott in an article in which he analized the criticism to the Wasson’s hypothesis, his identification of Soma with the fly agaric is still more important than any other alternative proposed so far (Ott, 1994).

However, the prevalence of the Indo-European peoples in the spread of the knowledge of the psychoactive properties of this mushroom in Asia and in Europe is not to be considered as an indisputable consequence of Wasson’s hypothesis. As Wasson himself affirmed many times, and as the pictures of the Epipaleolithic Saharian period (Samorini, 1992) would seem to confirm, the relationship of man with psychoactive mushrooms fades away at the beginning of time and originates in the long Stone Age. Therefore, in the history of the numberless human migrations, and of the invasions of one people over the other, one must sense a story of confrontations, of absorptions and synergisms of the respective "hierobotanic" knowledges, rather than a story of striking impositions or annihilation of the knowledge of one people over the other.

It is true, however, that it would seem that there was an important geografic-cultural point of diffusion of the knowledge of fly agaric - roughly central-western Asia - but it would be a misleading idea to think that it was the only original area of diffusion of this knowledge, or that such diffusion was promoted only by Indo-European peoples during the long period of their migrations. The kuda-kallu constructed not by Indo-European peoples, but by Dravidian ones right in the middle of Indo-European migrations would seem to invalidate such a view.

There seems to be no direct relationship between the kuda-kallu and the Vedic Soma, in the sense that these monuments do not appear as an emblem of a cult originated or influenced by the cult of Soma. Almost certainly the Dravidian peoples of southern India were not native of this territory, but came from some regions of western Asia, of eastern Europe or of Middle East, and when they reached the South of India, they were mixed with the local neolithic peoples. The racial composition of the present peoples of southern India is represented by a mix of proto-Australoid, Mediterranean and Aryan (Indo-European) characteristics. The proto-Australoids were the neolithic "native" peoples, whereas the mediterranean characteristic is associated with the Dravidian peoples: «They are alleged to have left their original home in the Mediterranean in the face of mounting aggression from the Greeks and came to India in three distinct waves, one of which settled down in South India, another in Western India, and the third in North India, viz. in the Hindus Valley. It is believed that these Mediterranean people really built up the Dravidian civilization of the South. Their kinsmen who settled down in the Indus Valley are credited with having built up simultaneously the Indus Valley Harappa cultures. With the beginning of the Aryan invasions of North India the Dravidians of the Indus Valley are said to have migrated and joined their kinsmen in the South (..) The Aryans began to enter Kerala two or three centuries B.C.» (Menon, 1991:43-4; cf. also id., 1990:8).

According to this historical prospect, the megalithic cult associated with the kuda-kallu developed in a period certainly preceding the actual contact of Aryans with southern India. The megalithic peoples are supposed have migrated towards India from their Mediterranean or middle-Eastern "original" territory following the migratory pressures of the same Indo-European peoples who went towards southern Europe from the Asiatic homeland. Driven out by Indo-Europeans, centuries later, the megalithic peoples had to settle account with other Indo-Europeans (the Aryans) who had by then lost the knowledge of the original Soma and practised the cult using substitutes of Soma.

The megalithic culture of southern India has features common to the southern and northern Europe megalithic cultures, even though between them there is a chronological hiatus of at least one thousand years; a hiatus which would appear as a serious obstacle for the theories which would like to see a direct cultural origin of the former from the latter ones. Nevertheless, the likeness of certain features of these cultures is striking and involves the shape itself of the kuda-kallu.

Some dolmen built in Great Britain and in northern France recall the kuda-kallu, and all the European megalithic production would deserve a careful ethnomicological study. In confirmation of this, it is sufficient to observe some rock-engravings on two of the gigantic monoliths forming the famous megalithic ceremonial site of Stonhenge, in Great Britain. These engravings depict images going back to the same figurative motif, interpreted by archeologists as the symbol of the sacrificial axe, an implement really found among the objects which furnished the megalithic burials. Nevertheless, the outlines of the axes engraved on the Stonhenge monoliths look anomalous in comparison with those of the axe usually represented on the other types of monuments of the same megalithic culture. The dissimilarity of the shape of the Stonehenge "axes" would seem peculiar to this archeological site, and it is such as to lead to ethnomicological interpretations and hypotheses.

As discussed by Gilberto Camilla and myself in a recent article on Greek art, «in the interpretation of known and repeated symbols depicted on archeological "documents", too often do scholars base themselves on generally accepted interpretations, perhaps not to hurt the feelings of who, sometimes more than one hundred years before, set a first reading, or maybe because of intepretation slothfulness and routine» (Samorini & Camilla, 1995). This could have happened, in addition to the study of Greek Art, also in the interpretation of Stonehenge rock-engravings and of the Kerala kuda-kallu, in the same way in which it happened in the interpretation of the Maya "mushroom-stones" in Guatemala, obstinately interpreted as phallic symbols or potter’s molds for decades (Lowy, 1975 and 1981).

Without discussing the merit of the question concerning the origin or not of the southern Indian megalithic culture from the European one, the fact remains that the hypothesis of a knowledge and of a cult of psychoactive mushrooms among the Euro-Asiatic megalithic cultures should not discarded a priori. The kuda-kallu would advise against doing so.


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